In search of cool-climate syrah, I’m on the road to the industrial city of Richmond.
Richmond, in the East Bay, isn’t normally seen as wine country, but it is this fine spring day. The Rhone Rangers, a group of vintners making and promoting wines made with grapes traditionally identified with France’s Rhone Valley – viognier, mourvedre and grenache, among others – have chosen Richmond for its annual tasting.
The meeting site – the Craneway Conference Center – turned out to be a pleasant surprise. A former 1930s Ford assembly plant, the soaring brick-and-glass structure was abandoned in 1956, extensively damaged during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and then resurrected into a handsome mixed-use complex.
My mission was the start of another sort of restoration project. Each year I join a half-dozen or so other wine enthusiasts in Geyserville for a themed blind tasting. It could be cabernet sauvignon or riesling or something else. Each taster brings three representative wines from a particular region.
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When the judges’ scores have been tabulated, I invariably have been humbled, though I had been confident I’d chosen all-star candidates.
We’ve already chosen the theme for next year’s tasting: cool-climate syrahs, and I’m to line up the candidates from California. Determined to regain honor for the regions and the wines I select, to say nothing of my own, my scouting for potential selections was starting early in Richmond.
Syrah is the grape variety and varietal wine most closely associated with the Rhone Rangers, but ever since syrah plantings began to accelerate along the West Coast two decades ago, it’s had an uneven history. The knock on syrah has been that consumers just don’t know what kind of representative they are going to taste when they open a bottle. A few are grand; many more are simply dull.
What little excitement syrah generates today often originates with wines made from grapes grown in cooler climates. But in California where would that be, and what is it about cool-climate syrah that puts it at the head of the Rhone pack? Let’s ask a couple of Rhone Rangers.
“A strong coastal influence is important,” says Carole Meredith, a former UC Davis professor and geneticist who with her husband, Steve Lagier, now grows grapes and makes wine under the brand Lagier Meredith. “It needs to be close to fog all summer. A high elevation doesn’t hurt. But it has to be pretty much coastal, close to or along a river straight off the ocean.”
The plot where Meredith and Lagier grow syrah looks to qualify. It’s high up Mount Veeder on the western edge of Napa Valley, an enclave generally not perceived as especially cool. But the Lagier Meredith site has elevation, and it’s so affected by the nearby Pacific Ocean that relatively cold air settles on the vines throughout the summer, especially at night, she notes.
Randall Grahm, the California vintner widely regarded as the original Rhone Ranger, says a cool-climate syrah isn’t likely to come from any vineyard with a warm western exposure. “Southeast, northeast and eastern exposures are great, but stay away from western exposures,” he advises. “Syrah doesn’t like warm afternoons.”
Other practitioners and observers of the syrah scene say to look to the Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County, Monterey County, the Sonoma Coast and the Carneros district at the southern stretches of Napa and Sonoma counties for cool-climate examples.
Aesthetically, what distinguishes cool-climate syrah from interpretations that originate in comparatively warm settings?
“Violets” in the aroma, says Meredith. “They’re balanced, they have good acidity, they have typicity,” says Grahm. “You get big white pepper, anise and bacon fat. And the alcohol is around 13 percent, not 15 percent.”
Time to begin whittling down candidates for the next Geyserville trip. Based on sample pours by the Rhone Rangers, here’s how I’m leaning:
▪ Campesino Cellars 2012 Sonoma Coast Sangiacomo Old Lakeville Vineyard Syrah ($35): This should go over big with fellow judges, thanks to its bright and lush fruit, supple tannins and conservative exploitation of oak. Not a lot of violets, bacon fat and white pepper there, but its juicy fruit is friendly up front and long in the finish.
▪ Carica Wines 2011 Mendocino County Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah ($39): While these grapes come from a plot with a western exposure, the vineyard also is relatively high (1,600 feet) and tends to be cooler than the Ukiah Valley below. The result is a gorgeous syrah with a bouquet of violets in aroma, juicy cherry and plummy fruit in flavor and a couple of slices of thick-cut bacon in the finish.
▪ Fields Family Wines 2013 Lodi Mokelumne River Postage Stamp Vineyard Shiraz ($32): Whether Lodi is a cool climate can be debated, but this plush and peppery interpretation – with notes of eucalyptus and mint – makes a pretty persuasive case for the proponents. The use of “shiraz” rather than “syrah” for the wine is a nod to the Barossa heritage of the vines.
▪ Lagier Meredith 2012 Napa Valley Mount Veeder Syrah ($48): If I were to bet on which of the California syrahs at the Rhone Rangers would be the first to qualify for the next Geyserville tasting, it would be the Lagier Meredith, which on the authority of its vivid and beckoning floral aroma, deep and broad berry and cherry flavor and veritable pantry of pepper could all on its own revive prospects for syrah in the state.
▪ Pax Mahle Wines 2011 Sonoma Coast Griffin’s Lair Syrah ($64): The most complex syrah of the day. It’s a brilliant exhibit of the intense and lush blueberry side of syrah, sprinkled generously not only with white pepper but black.
▪ Pax Mahle Wines 2011 Mendocino County Cahto Ridge Alder Springs Syrah ($60): Beefier and more floral, with sweeter fruit than the Griffin’s Lair, but nonetheless just as balanced, focused and spicy.
▪ Qupé 2010 Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Syrah ($40): When Qupé, Santa Maria Valley and Bien Nacido are on a bottle of wine, you can count on concentrated fruit, definitive character and deep and lasting flavor. This is a classic Santa Barbara County syrah – plush fruit, agile tannins and refreshing acidity. The warning label, however, should alert drinkers that a fit of sneezing might be brought on by all the pepper in the glass.
▪ Qupé 2011 Edna Valley Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard “Sonnies” Syrah ($55): Edna Valley is likely the coolest enclave in the otherwise frequently torrid San Luis Obispo County. This wine’s generous blueberry fruit and notes of smoked meat are spiced with a twist or two or three of black pepper.
▪ Skylark Wine Co. 2010 Sonoma Coast Rogers Creek Syrah ($36): Characteristic blueberries and plums are shot through here with threads of eucalyptus, mint and a handful or two of savory herbs. And I know just where to find this wine, at San Francisco’s Boulevard Restaurant, given that Boulevard’s wine directors, John Lancaster and Robert Perkins, also own Skylark.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.